Viewpoint: The National Gallery Singapore's logo stays inside the box

An artist's impression of National Gallery Singapore. -- PHOTO: ©STUDIOMILOU SINGAPORE 2013/NATIONAL GALLERY SINGAPORE
An artist's impression of National Gallery Singapore. -- PHOTO: ©STUDIOMILOU SINGAPORE 2013/NATIONAL GALLERY SINGAPORE
The National Gallery Singapore’s new logo. -- PHOTO: NATIONAL GALLERY SINGAPORE/FACEBOOK
The National Gallery Singapore’s new logo. -- PHOTO: NATIONAL GALLERY SINGAPORE/FACEBOOK

Lego blocks. Bar graphs. Redaction marks. Too minimalist and reductive. Lazy. Could have been done by a child. 

These are just some of the sharply-whetted criticisms that have been hurled, thick and heavy, as a response to the National Gallery Singapore’s new logo, which was unveiled just two days ago.

Rarely have I seen such polarising displays of emotion in reaction to an art institution’s logo, as artists, arts lovers and curious onlookers weighed in on the two rectangular blocks. Some hailed it for its simplicity, others despaired over its blandness and lack of meaning.

My instinctive first reaction to the National Gallery’s new branding and identity was not to the logo, but to its name change. The former iteration of The National Art Gallery, Singapore, prior to this name change, had an initially unfortunate acronym of NAGS, which was altered to TNAGS, before the institution settled on NAGA, which I found to be wonderfully appropriate given the appearance of the magical naga, a supernatural serpent deity, in numerous Southeast Asian myths.

It is a figure both respected and feared, both a protector and an aggressor, with deep associations to fertility and wealth (incidentally, two of Singapore’s great fixations).

With that sinuous, sensual image in mind, it is perhaps unsurprising that the two new angular blocks sit rather uneasily with their serpentine predecessor, one given to slithering out of the box.

On their own, these two blocks are a hallmark of clever design. Good logos are never visually convoluted (think Nike, McDonald’s or Apple), while allowing the public endless means of imaginative interpretation.

With Apple, for instance, one is reminded of “A is for Apple”, the building block of the alphabet - and by extension, the basis of technology. Isaac Newton’s discovery of gravity is often attributed to the falling apple, hinting that the company could produce similarly ground-breaking discoveries.

There are hints of Eden and the fruit of knowledge of good and evil, but also the commonplace nature of the fruit – everyone knows what an apple is, and we consume it on a regular basis. All of these myriad associations, wrapped up in one simple, punchy icon.

The National Gallery logo seems to have the same aspirations. Its website explains: “An abstract representation of the two iconic buildings housing the National Gallery, the logo comprises two rectangular blocks which can be interpreted in every imaginable way — two building blocks, two dialogue boxes, two platforms; two plinths or simply two spaces for visual arts.”

Therein lies the rub.

In any other society, these two boxes might have been blank canvasses for artistic experimentation. It is unfortunate that the image of the box in Singapore is so inextricably knotted to the country’s baggage of over-pragmatism. We are constantly instructed to “think out of the box”, ironically acknowledging the box’s existence in the first place. Internationally, the country is often perceived as being boxed in by rules and by conservatism – or in colloquial terms, rather “square”.

The Gallery also justifies the reason for its geometric abstraction (a nod to its modern art focus), as well as the reasons for the charcoal grey and red colour palette: “timeless and solid colours reflecting strength and steadfastness, representing the vision of the Gallery to become a visual arts institution that inspires and engages our people and our neighbours”.

It makes sense for any institution to shed some light on how their visual microcosm was designed. But instead of eliciting the vastness of the imagination championed by the logo, this explanation feels a bit like a national education lesson, the way one might explain the choices of red and white on a Singapore flag.

As a typography nut who took classes in printmaking at university, I think dissecting the Gallery’s typeface is essential to understanding what sort of image it wants to present to the world.

Cultural icons such as the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York both have typefaces created just for their use.

MoMA’s is a Gothic typeface, known for its thick, solid ascenders and descenders, and no serifs (the tiny lines attached to the end of letter and symbol strokes; for instance, this newspaper uses serifs). It feels bold and exclamatory, and evokes a sense of breaking boundaries.

The Guggenheim’s sans serif typeface was originally the widespread Helvetica, but now uses a typeface specially designed by the great type designer Jonathan Hoefler in 1997. It is sleek and modernist while retaining a sense of elegance.

The National Gallery uses Akzidenz-Grotesk, a sans-serif font. Incidentally, the term “grotesk” does not mean that the fonts are ugly – but is used interchangeably with “sans-serif”. It dates back to the 18th and 19th centuries when sans-serif typefaces were introduced, and like other words, its definition has evolved over the years.

It is a readable, accessible font, the typographic equivalent of throwing one’s doors open to the public while remaining firmly out of the limelight, leaving the scene-stealing to the artwork on display.

What is problematic, however, is that Akzidenz-Grotesk is very often mistaken for Helvetica, a common typeface most often associated with the New York City subway signs. While Helvetica enjoys an incredible reach, it has also been shunned for its neutrality and blandness as it creeps into everyday life.

While the identity of the National Gallery is still taking shape, does this logo give a hint of what is to come?

At the moment, it feels a little like a sonnet, constrained within a strict rhyming scheme but still with enough legroom to create a thing of wonder.

One hopes that it will not be a one-size fits all approach.

corriet@sph.com.sg